Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Confession on Trial: An Oregon Priest Discovers That Nothing's Sacred Behind Prison Walls

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Confession on Trial: An Oregon Priest Discovers That Nothing's Sacred Behind Prison Walls

Article excerpt

In June of 1995 began visiting the Catholic inmates of the county jail here in Eugene, Oregon, to celebrate the sacraments. After 10 months of regular visits to the imprisoned, I was confident that the privacy of our conversations was being respected. And as I celebrated the sacrament of Reconciliation with the prisoners, I grew to appreciate even more how fundamental is the absolute confidentiality of that relationship and the freedom it creates.

In the priest/penitent relationship, where the mercy of a loving God is offered and a free response is expected to a love freely given, the guarantee of privacy must be rock solid. The Code of Canon Law establishes that the "seal" of the sacrament is "inviolable." It surrounds that relationship with very serious sanctions. Once the sacramental "forum" is established, the seal, resting on the confessor, provides freedom for the penitent. With this guarantee one can freely acknowledge sin and freely receive the gratuitous mercy of God.

On April 22, 1996 I went to the jail at the request of Conan Wayne Hale to celebrate the sacrament of Reconciliation. Since my visits were commonly restricted to the visitors' area, I was aware of the usual admittance process. The jail personnel always knew the purpose of my visit and the time of my arrival. A sign in the room prohibited the defacing of walls and windows; in addition to these restrictions was a statement: "No recording equipment allowed."

As I concluded my visit with Hale, a young man of 21, I noticed nothing unusual or out of place. My confidence, however, was about to be shattered.

On May 31 received a cryptic message from a local newspaper reporter at the Eugene Register Guard seeking my reaction to "the recording of a Confession I heard at the jail." Bewildered, I quickly returned the call. The reporter, having discovered a search warrant among public court records, wanted to know what I thought of the tape recording of my visit with Hale 10 days before.

Nearly speechless, I responded, "What do I think of what?" The astonished reporter asked, "You mean, Father, you didn't know this was done? I think they want to use this in court."

Stating emphatically, "They can't do that!" I explained the sacramental nature of this relationship and expressed the absolute expectation of its privacy. After the reporter told me he was doing a story on this in the morning paper, I hung up the phone feeling helpless and confused.

The next morning I found the incident in bold print on the front page: "Suspect's exchange with priest recorded." The story related that Hale was a suspect in a triple murder investigation and had been arrested several months before I visited with him. This "conversation," as the paper referred to it, had been tape-recorded secretly. This was the centerpiece of the story.

So began a two-year saga of twists and turns in both the legal world and my priestly ministry. Among the more disturbing developments was an explanation by the local district attorney, Douglas Harcleroad, that the purpose of the taping was for security reasons at the jail. He boldly stated on the evening news, "You never know what kind of plotting and planning is going on between visitors and inmates. Even priests and ministers have been convicted of serious crimes."

I was not a stranger to the jail. What kind of threat was I to security? I felt insulted.

Later that week, in a private meeting with the district attorney, I learned more correctly how and why this appalling action was undertaken. The taping was carried out deliberately because it was known to be the sacrament of Penance. Having obtained a copy of the warrant issued to listen to the tape--the one mentioned by the reporter--I discovered this chilling statement:

The Catholic Confession is

an integral part of Catholicism.

It is a sacrament. The

basic tenet of Confession is

that a person is absolved of

his or her wrongdoing upon

making a full and complete

acknowledgment of what

that wrongdoing is. …

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